Sacred Echoes

Courtesy Smart Museum of Art

A headless god of stone sits with his legs crossed, a red and blue halo encircling the empty space above his neck. A stripe of faded green is still visible on his robes. His left hand is bent backwards, the palm facing out; the right hand is gone, but one imagines that it too would have faced outwards, a calm gesture of acceptance. In front of the halo, a regal, dignified, and electric-yellow head appears. Other yellow heads and bodies pop up around the altar, some crowned, some bald; some bowing, some playing instruments. The heads appear on the six elegant attendants that flank the deity or on the thousands of figures carved into the stone wall. All around the temple, fragments return to their original positions.

The altar is in China, but the yellow heads appear in Hyde Park. Three screens, ten-by-nine feet tall, show a 3D rendering of a cave-temple in the limestone hills of Hebei province, 250 miles southwest of Beijing–11,000 miles west of Chicago. This digital reconstruction of the cave is in the center of a new exhibit at the Smart Museum, “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan,” which was produced in conjunction with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian. The exhibit is as much about the future as it is the past, combining ancient sculptures and remnants from the caves with high-tech digital recreations.

Xiangtangshan, or the Mountain of Echoing Halls, consists of two groups of caves that were transformed into Buddhist temples by the wealthy imperial patrons of the sixth-century Northern Qi Dynasty. The caves were relatively well maintained until the early 20th century. Interest in East Asian art spiked during a period of political unrest in China, making it all too easy for art dealers to take their pick of the caves’ artifacts and sell them abroad. Incense-burning pilgrims and camera-toting tourists still visit the temples to this day for worship and religious festivals, but most of the remaining statuaries lack heads or hands.

In recent decades, interest in the cave-temples of Xiangtangshan has resurged; in 2004, Dr. Kathy Tsiang and her team at the Center for the Art of East Asia traveled to see the fragments of Xiangtangshan scattered in museums and private collections across the world. Using sophisticated equipment to scan the statues and fragments, scholars then created 3D images, like the Digital Cave, which helped match a fragment to its original location. In the digital cave at the Smart Museum, the stone that remains on site is shown in its natural color, while heads and fragments that have been located outside China are digitally restored to their original bodies, appearing in bright yellow.

Also in the exhibit are thirteen original limestone fragments from Xiangtangshan. Lent from museums as far away as San Francisco and London, the collection includes a crouching demon, a disciple of the Buddha, and a tall bodhisattva, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. A short, looping documentary shows modern Xiangtangshan; the green, tranquil hills of Drum Mountain are juxtaposed against the nearby mining town of Fengfeng, where factory smoke circles gray apartment buildings and hordes of cars and people crowd the streets.

The exhibit inevitably evokes questions about art, national ownership, and the idea of what is sacred, but it also changes the terms of each of those debates. At a symposium given on October 23, historians and curators came together to discuss the significance of the caves from artistic, historical, and archaeological perspectives, as well as the implications of using 3D scanning technology. “One can recover the architectural value [of the caves] with 21st-century technology,” said museum curator Richard Born, “without the need to return the object to its original location.”

More than ever before, with new technology, the art can belong both to China and to the world. As the art dealer C.T. Loo said many decades ago, when he lamented the nature of his work in dismantling the caves: “I felt so ashamed….China has lost its treasures. Our only consolation is that art has no frontiers…[the statues are] ambassadors from China.”

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